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Pakistani Girl, a Global Heroine after an Attack, Has Critics at Home


By Salman Masood and Deccan Walsh

October 11, 2013

The question for the class of 10th graders at an all-girls school here in this picturesque mountain valley was a simple one: How many of them, a district official wanted to know, had heard of Malala Yousafzai?

The students stared at the official, Farrukh Atiq, in silence. Not a single hand was raised.

“Everyone knows about Malala, but they do not want to affiliate with her,” Mr. Atiq said on Thursday, as speculation grew that Ms. Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago, might win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the end, Ms. Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Prize. That went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But after a week of intense news coverage, during which she released her memoir and won a prestigious European award for human rights, Ms. Yousafzai’s stature as a symbol of peace and bravery has been established across the world — everywhere, it seems, except at home.

It is not just that the schoolchildren fear becoming targets, though that is certainly an element in their caution. “I am against Malala,” said Muhammad Ayaz, 22, a trader who runs a small store beside Ms. Yousafzai’s old school in Mingora, the main town in the Swat Valley. “The media has projected Malala as a heroine of the West. But what has she done for Swat?”

That sense of smoldering animosity toward Ms. Yousafzai, 16, in the Swat Valley — which she hurriedly left aboard a military helicopter for treatment last year after being shot — seems to be animated in part by the tensions of a rural community still traumatized by conflict.

Although the Pakistani Army forced the Taliban from Swat during a major military operation in 2009, pockets of militants remain, occasionally striking against soldiers or activists like Ms. Yousafzai.

Many residents fear the Islamists could one day return to power in the valley, an anxiety that, paradoxically, has stoked simmering hostility toward the militants’ most famous victim.

“What is her contribution?” asked Khursheed Dada, a worker with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which governs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, including Swat.

That cynicism was echoed this week across Pakistan, where conspiracy-minded citizens loudly branded Ms. Yousafzai a C.I.A. agent, part of a nebulous Western plot to humiliate their country and pressure their government.

Muhammad Asim, a student standing outside the gates of Punjab University in the eastern city of Lahore, dismissed the Taliban attack on Ms. Yousafzai as a made-for-TV drama. “How can a girl survive after being shot in the head?” he asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”

The reaction seemed to stem from different places: sensitivity at Western hectoring, a confused narrative about the Taliban and a sense of resentment or downright jealousy.

In Swat, some critics accused Ms. Yousafzai’s father, Ziauddin, of using his precocious daughter to drum up publicity and of maligning Pashtun culture. Others said the intense publicity had cast their district in a negative light, overshadowing the good work of other Pakistanis in education.

Dilshad Begum, the district education officer for Swat, said that 14,000 girls and 17,000 boys had recently started school after an intensive door-to-door enrollment campaign led by local teachers. The threat from the Taliban was exaggerated, she added.

“I have been working for female education for 25 years, and never received a threat,” she said.

Even fellow students seemed to resent the recognition Ms. Yousafzai has received. At another school, a group of female students, assembled by their headmaster, agreed that Ms. Yousafzai did not deserve a Nobel Prize.

“Malala is not the only role model for Pakistani girls,” said Kainat Ali, 16, who wore a black Burqa.

Not all Pakistanis joined in the criticism. Many expressed pride in the bravery of their most famous teenager, who has had tea with Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace and received a standing ovation at the United Nations. By Friday there was a groundswell of support. Television stations broadcast songs lauding her work, and good luck messages flooded Facebook and Twitter. Students and women, in particular, said they had been inspired by her.

After the Nobel winner was announced, some openly expressed disappointment. In Swat, Shahid Iqbal, a music and movie store owner, said Ms. Yousafzai had made their district proud. “Malala is our daughter. She should have won the Nobel,” he said.

Imran Khan, the former cricketer who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and has regularly faced criticism for his views on the Taliban; said Ms. Yousafzai represented “the struggle of girls and women everywhere against tyranny and oppression.”

One of the more poignant scenes unfolded in the port city of Karachi, where Atiya Arshad, an 11-year-old girl who was also shot by militants, waited at her home for news of the Nobel Prize.

Atiya was shot twice in the stomach in March when people suspected of being Taliban militants armed with guns and grenades attacked her school in Ittehad Town, a poor neighborhood of Karachi. The attack was part of a broader campaign of intimidation this year by the Taliban to assert themselves in Pakistan’s largest city.

Some students were watching a magic show when the attackers struck, but Atiya was lining up to receive an academic award at a prize ceremony. The school principal, Rasheed Ahmed, and an 11-year-old girl were killed.

Atiya is now in a wheelchair, though her doctors are confident that with treatment and therapy she will be able to walk. She recalled how she was inspired to excel by a visit to the school by Ms. Yousafzai a year earlier, as part of the campaign to promote education for girls.

“I was so happy to see Malala,” she said in an interview. “I don’t know why these people don’t want us to go to school.”

Her father, a flour mill worker, noted that in contrast with Ms. Yousafzai, no politicians or campaigners had rushed to help after his daughter was shot. “We are arranging her treatment with great difficulty,” he said.

In interviews this week, Ms. Yousafzai said she was undeterred by the criticism at home, attributing it to the well-founded cynicism many Pakistanis harbor toward their political leaders. Still, she told an audience in New York on Thursday, her goal is to become prime minister of Pakistan one day.

“I can spend much of the budget on education,” she told Christiane Amanpour of CNN, drawing loud applause. But few think it would be safe for her to return home any time soon.

Repeated Taliban threats to kill Ms. Yousafzai should she set foot in Swat again were being taken very seriously, said Mr. Atiq, the district official. “More fame brings more danger,” he said. “The threat is greater than ever.”

Ms. Yousafzai has the consolation of knowing that her message of education for girls now resounds across the world. When the Taliban gunman boarded her bus in October 2012, he called out, “Who is Malala?” Now, as she noted in an interview this week, her voice is heard “in every corner of the world.”

Yet she insists that, come what may, Pakistan will always be her home. “Even if its people hate me,” she said one interview, “I will still love it.”

Salman Masood reported from the Swat Valley, and Declan Walsh from London. Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting from Karachi, Pakistan, and Waqar Gillani from Lahore, Pakistan.